Is the company making genetically modified salmon about to become the next Solyndra? According to the U.K.’s Guardian, it’s very possible. In the wake of the USDA’s announcement of a $500,000 grant to AquaBounty, the developer of Atlantic salmon that have been modified to grow faster on less feed, advocates at the Center for Food Safety, a consumer group opposed to FDA approval, dug deeper into the company’s latest financial statement.
Grist noted late last month that the company had a net loss of $2.8 million. Now it’s also clear that the company faces a fairly serious cash crunch. After spending 16 years and $67 million developing the fish, AquaBounty may run out of money by the middle of next year.
It’s true that the FDA may be only weeks away from announcing its approval, but the salmon (which has been branded with the name AquAdvantage) has a long way to go until it gets out of the lab. After all, the system for growing the fish is complex, land-based, and intentionally avoids U.S. sites for operations (the fish eggs will supposedly be grown in Canada and the fish themselves in Panama — but the Guardian reports neither country has given approval).
As The Center for Food Safety’s Colin O’Neill told the Guardian, “They are still not in the home stretch even if there is FDA approval.”
The Guardian‘s coverage also focused on government shenanigans, and asks: Did the USDA follow proper procedures in approving the loan? (The agency claims it did.) Still, there’s no question that the USDA is trying to throw AquAdvantage a lifeline — and it’s unlikely to have done so without a fairly strong belief that FDA approval isn’t far off. And of course, one could argue that AquaBounty has shown a repeated ability to raise money and now, so close to its goal, it’s likely to find investors willing to help them out.
Solyndra had to face down the issue of competing solar technology leap-frogging the product the company had put time and money into developing (as Grist has explained). AquBounty (thankfully) has no real competition, so it should surprise no one that the biotech-friendly USDA is going all in.
Another difference from the Solyndra fracas: I seriously doubt that Republicans will leap up and begin a loud and sustained media campaign to end government subsidies for the biotech industry as they did for solar. Indeed, the real issue seems to be that AquaBounty has raised its pant leg to display an Achilles Heel: the company’s dwindling bank account. On top of all this, GMO food labeling is becoming a household issue. More than one dedicated advocacy group has recently arisen to fight back, and general concern about GMO food hasn’t been so present in the mainstream media since the Great Genetically Modified French Fry Debacle of 2000. All this might give pause to new investors in such technology.
AquaBounty’s balance sheet is a tempting target for advocates looking to aim their rhetorical arrows. The more delays and roadblocks that get thrown up against government approvals — whether here, in Canada, or in Panama — the less likely it becomes that GMO salmon will ever see the light of day. And while that would be a shame for the workers at AquaBounty, the rest of us (not to mention the remaining stocks of wild salmon) would be far better off without it.